Tag Archives: Musical

281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)

Hugó, a Víziló

“If you accept a strange story told to you as true,

Then a certain enlightenment comes to you.”

Hugo the Hippo theme “It’s Really True” (as sung by Marie Osmond)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bill Feigenbaum, József Gémes

FEATURING: Voices of , Burl Ives, Ronnie Cox, Robert Morley

PLOT: The Sultan of Zanzibar kidnaps a herd of African hippopotami and relocates them to Arabia to defend his harbor from sharks. After the shark menace is ended and the city prospers, the citizens forget about the hippos, until one day the hungry herds’ excursion to eat local farmers’ crops leads the Sultan’s evil Vizier Aban-Khan to organize a slaughter of the beasts. Only the youngest, Hugo, escapes; he flees to Dar es Salaam and makes friends with the local children, but Aban-Khan continues to hunt him out of pure malice.

Still from Hugo the Hippo (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is inspired by an actual hippo nicknamed “Hugo”, who ate farmers’ crops before being adopted by the real Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam.
  • The film was a Hungarian/U.S. co-production. All of the animation was done on the cheap in Hungary. It was released dubbed into both languages.
  • Hugo the Hippo is co-writer/director Bill Feigenbaum’s only film credit. József Gémes went on to direct many Hungarian animated features.
  • Young Marie and Jimmy Osmond perform most of the songs on the soundtrack, along with two songs by Burl Ives and two numbers by jazz/funk session bands.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be something from the wild vegetable hallucination montage: the apple samurai? Jorma and Hugo climbing onto the space butterfly and sailing through the fruity cosmos? We selected the Dalí-esque shot of three massive monolith potatoes triangulating and transfixing our heroes with the magical beams that shoot from their literal eyes as our take-home image.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cigarette-smoking shark; cloud massacre; sliced apple ninja

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hugo the Hippo was released to widespread indifference. Contemporary reviewers were bored and strangely dismissive, failing to catch the undercurrent of weirdness here, but a generation of youngsters scarred by the hippopotamus massacre kept Hugo‘s underground legend alive. The combination of kitschy songs, psychedelic animation, bizarre plotting, tone shifts, hallucinatory episodes, and the inimitable Paul Lynde as an evil hippo-hating vizier blend to create a children’s film gone awry in all the most delightful ways.


Short clip from Hugo the Hippo

COMMENTS: We might adopt the lyrics from the opening Continue reading 281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)

LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Stitt

FEATURING: Voices of Peter Ustinov, Arthur Dignam, Ed Rosser, Ric Stone

PLOT: Baffled by the rise of little men who fear him, Grendel chews over his strange life experiences while talking to his silent mother, questioning the nature of his existence until his purpose is made obliquely clear when he visits a nearby dragon.

Still from Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: After fruitless efforts to find reasons why it shouldn’t make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, I realized that Grendel Grendel Grendel must deserve a slot. There’s marvelously unrealistic animation, witty soliloquies, and even a few musical numbers—none better than when a singing Grendel interrupts a ballad with, “Who’s the beast that looks so swell? G-R-E-N-D-E-L. What’s his purpose, can’t you guess? N-E-M-E-S-I-S!” Yes, this little monster ‘toon from Australia has what it takes.

COMMENTS: In my brief but busy history here at 366, I’ve encountered many kinds of weird movie. Scary-weird, grotesque-weird, unnerving-weird, incomprehensible-weird… but Grendel Grendel Grendel marks the very first time I’ve encountered cute-weird. Through its simplistically expressive animation, Grendel brings us the less-known story of the eponymous monster (charmingly voiced—and sung—by the great Peter Ustinov). The novelty of the perspective, the coloring-book-come-to-life feel of the imagery, the drollery, and the musical numbers collide in a wonderful spectacle of light, sound, whimsy, and weird.

On a “Tuesday Morning, Scandinavia, 515 AD”, we see warriors troubled by a massive footprint. Thus appears the first sign of Grendel. Indeed, as we learn early on in a song, this monster is a hulking 12’4″ and covered in scales and fur. He eats forest game and the occasional human—but kills far fewer humans than the humans themselves. The humble origins of the up-and-coming King Hrothgar (Ed Rosser) show a man of only slightly greater intelligence than his peers who has, in effect, a three-member posse and a kingdom in name only. But as Hrothgar’s kingdom grows, so grows the body count (with, admittedly, a few in the tally racked up by Grendel). It is only through a misunderstanding that things take a serious turn and the King calls for an exterminator.

So we’ve got our adorable anti-hero, our petty humans, and wondrous color-block environment. Grendel is urbane and witty— similar to Peter Ustinov. The narrative conceit is that Grendel talks to his (unspeaking) mother, with an interruption every now and again for song. Simultaneously the “shaper” Hrothgar hires for his mead hall forges a mighty ballad about the King’s nose and its battle-earned scar. Also, a mystical dragon discloses facts of life to Grendel, in song and dance form. By the time Beowulf arrives on the scene, we know exactly for whom we won’t be rooting—although Grendel ‘s Beowulf is hilariously snide and lecherous. All told, there’s not much going on in this movie that one would describe as “normal”, particularly for a G-rated animated feature.

With its unlikely ingredients, Grendel comes together far, far better than one would readily think it should. The director, Alex Stitt, also wrote the screenplay and produced, so we’ve obviously got a labor of love here. It was a fortunate turn of events that his labor was executed with competence, grace, and ample style. It was also fortunate that the (also great) James Earl Jones turned down the lead role when offered to him (ostensibly when he found out it would be an animated picture). Peter Ustinov provides one of his greatest and most memorable performance as the lovable Grendel. His personality underscores the beast’s humanity, and allows us an anchor in the vibrantly fanciful world of Grendel Grendel Grendel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes… I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.”–Film Walrus (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY: A MUSICAL ADVENTURE (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Williams

FEATURING: Claire Williams, Didi Conn (voice), Mark Baker (voice)

PLOT: Raggedy Ann and Andy to pursue a toy pirate into a mystical fantasy world to rescue a French waif.

Still from Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because of its reputation as a weird animated film which traumatized generations of kids, we dare not exclude it from consideration, lest the masses rise up against us. But also, it includes an auto-cannibalistic taffy pit, singing naked twins, a camel who insists on pointing out his deformities, and a practical-joker knight—and we haven’t even entered Loony Land yet.

COMMENTS: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: A bunch of animated, sentient toys in a child’s room greet a new toy which is unable to accept its lot in life. It runs away with another toy from the room while the rest of the toys marshal a plan to go rescue them—with lots of songs along the way. Toy Story? Ding, you are correct! But Raggedy Ann and Andy did it all eighteen years before. The film is in fact based on the book “Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knee,” by Johnny and Marcella Gruelle. There were a whole series of these books that came out around the Great Depression and are soaked in that time period’s sensibilities—after all, Ann is raggedy, not shiny and new like a rich kid’s doll would be.

From the letter-by-letter animated credits to the full-blown absurd climax, this movie is a treat in every sense, but it is also some of the most bonkers animation ever set to film. It’s an onslaught of eccentric characters, spontaneous songs every ten minutes, fantasy places as exotic as anything you’d find in Wonderland, and demented dream logic throughout. All of this is animated by a team working on individual segments, chiefly led by legendary animator Richard Williams, with meticulous attention to detail but mismatched styles throughout the film, giving it Heavy Metal levels of inconsistency. Flopsy moppet dolls gambol in boneless dances, shape-shifting blobs boil in a hodge-podge of mismatched eyeballs, and at times the cast is propelled through what appears to be an MC Escher world or a psychedelic rainbow land, except when they’re charging off cliffs against a sky that’s an homage to Vincent van Gogh.

Raggedy Ann and Andy reside with a host of other dolls in the playroom of a little girl, Marcella, who’s getting a new toy for her birthday: Babette, a French doll who snobbishly disdains her surroundings. She’ll be taken down a notch when the pirate Captain, finagling an escape from the solitary confinement of his snow globe, sails away with her lashed to the mast of his ship. Ann and Andy set out to rescue her, encountering the wrinkly-kneed Camel, the sentient self-consuming lake of taffy known as the “Greedy,” a sadistic practical joker Knight, and eventually the appropriately named Loony Land where bedlam is the only law.

If you see this film as a wee tot, it’s just a fun fantasy musical with a tad more psychedelic imagery than the average animated feature. The weirdness sneaks up on you long after. Perhaps the movie’s story comes from more innocent times, but there’s almost too many disturbing implications for it to be unintentional. Ann and Andy are brother and sister but act like lovers, there’s a mean and crazy man who torments lost little dolls in the woods at night while singing that he loves them, there’s an impotent king whose body parts inflate at random and who rages that he can’t expand bigger unless he’s torturing a captive, there’s a female former captive in bondage who now rules a crew of men while cracking a whip, there’s a tickle monster, and you could go on all day. Now ponder the hellish existence of the Greedy, a monster made of candy who craves candy and so eats himself constantly, before discovering Ann’s candy heart and coming after her with a pair of scissors to cut it out – because he wants a “sweetheart.” Now you know why everybody loved this movie as a kid and yet recalls it with shivers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What mostly registers from the movie, though, is its unfettered weirdness; and this is something that will be felt differently by every viewer. For myself, I was delighted by the way the animators chased their ideas down to extreme degrees without holding anything back, seeing how the discipline learned from Disney and Warner could produce some exquisitely warped surrealism.”–Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending

CAPSULE: XANADU (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Greenwald

FEATURING: Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, Gene Kelly, Matt Lattanzi, James Sloyan

PLOT: Sonny Malone is a gifted artist reduced to designing album covers, but when he meets former big band leader Danny McGuire, the duo join forces with an Olympian muse open a roller disco club.

Still from Xanadu (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Xanadu is campy, kitschy and appalling, but it’s not weird. It’s just one of the last death rattles of the disco era.

COMMENTS: La La Land may have revived the movie musical, which has been on life support for decades because of flops like Xanadu. This film spawned a soundtrack album (deliriously overproduced by the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne) that was a monster hit in 1980, spawning five top 20 singles. The movie itself, however, bombed, and rightfully so. It’s inoffensive, embarrassing piffle. Made on a big budget, Xanadu still looks cheap, and director Robert Greenwald , who later made The Burning Bed and several progressive-minded documentaries, doesn’t really seem to know how to stage musical numbers, despite choreography from Kenny Ortega (High School Musical). Michael Beck, fresh off the macho action classic The Warriors, looks embarrassed (he never starred in a movie again), and poor 68-year-old Gene Kelly makes his unfortunate farewell to musicals in this dud. Olivia Newton-John is beautiful but cannot act—although she was much better in Grease—-while director Don Bluth (An American Tail) contributes a weak animated segment.

Practically all memory of the film vanishes right after you’ve seen it. Xanadu is sort of a remake of the indifferently received 1947 Rita Hayworth musical Down to Earth, while Kelly also played a character named Danny McGuire in the 1944’s Cover Girl opposite Hayworth. Either of those films has to better than Xanadu, which only Newton-John may still remember fondly: the young Danny McGuire is played in flashback by dancer-actor Matt Lattanzi, who later became her husband. No amount of fake glitter and flash can salvage this Lattanzi-Newton John family album, however: the climactic musical number involves a series of revolving stages that reminded me of the old Disneyland show “America Sings”. I’d rather sit through “America Sings” again. In fact, those who want to experience Xanadu should listen to the soundtrack album (featuring Newton John, ELO, Cliff Richard, and the Tubes)  instead of slumbering through this decidedly non-weird musical relic of the Studio 54 era.

Someone apparently had pleasant, perhaps drug-induced memories of the picture, because in 2007 Xanadu was adapted into a modestly produced Broadway musical (starring “30 Rock”‘s Cheyenne Jackson) that was nominated  for a few Tony awards. In the end, Xanadu may be recalled chiefly as being part of the “great”—or awful—disco musical trend of 1980, which also gave us the infamous Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music. Anecdotally, unfortunate moviegoer John J.B. Wilson saw both films at a 99-cent double feature and came up with the idea of the Razzie awards, “honoring” the year’s worst films, which are still held today. At least Xanadu has better songs than Can’t Stop the Music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To appreciate the madness within, one must take in the blinding neon sights with an open heart and at least one nostril-coating line of cocaine. Surely I hold no certainty that ‘Xanadu’ was fueled by heaping spoonfuls of Bolivian marching powder, but I offer this evidence: it was 1980 and the picture is bonkers.”–Brian Orndoff, Brianorndoff.com (DVD)

266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”–Frank Zappa, Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986
Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer, Frank Zappa

FEATURING: Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, , , , Jimmy Carl Black, Frank Zappa

PLOT: A collection of absurd sketches about life on the road as a rock band, 200 Motels offers very little in the way of plot. Running bits include Ringo Starr playing a large dwarf enlisted to portray Zappa, Theodore Bikel as a Mephistophelean figure trying to get the band to sign documents in blood, and Keith Moon as a groupie dressed as a nun; amidst the chaos, the band members constantly try to either get laid, get high, or scheme to form spin-off bands. In between, Zappa and the band perform musical numbers like “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and Zappa conducts an orchestra playing his avant-garde classical compositions.

Still from 200 Motels (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Frank Zappa thought up the idea for the film while on tour with the Mothers of Invention. He wrote much of the music in 200 Motels from motel rooms while on tour.
  • The opening credits explain the split in the directorial duties, with Tony Palmer credited for “visuals” and Zappa for directing the “characterizations.”
  • Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (“Flo and Eddie”) formerly comprised the Turtles, who had a smash hit with “Happy Together.” They joined Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, as featured vocalists in 1970, and stayed in the Mothers until 1972—just long enough to have featured roles in 200 Motels.
  • Ringo Starr’s chauffeur played the band’s bass player: according to one anecdote, he was cast after the two bass players quit the band and a frustrated Zappa vowed to hire the next person who walked through the door.
  • 200 Motels was one of the earliest films shot on video and transferred to film. Shooting on video allowed Tony Palmer to create visual effects that would have been too expensive to shoot on film.
  • In his review of the soundtrack album, Palmer called 200 Motelsone of the worst films in the entire history of cinema, a criticism which I can confidently assert because I was in part responsible for its direction.
  • In 1988 Zappa made a documentary about the film called “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. That rarity is long out of print on VHS and has never had an authorized DVD or Blu-ray release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tony Palmer overlaid trippy experimental video effects—the visual correlative of Frank Zappa’s oddball music—over almost every minute of the running time, making this a particularly difficult movie to choose a single image for. These tricks accumulate to build up a hazy impression of whirling psychedelia. Since we have to pick one image, however, we’ll go with our first view of Centerville, the small town enveloped in a wavering pattern of lysergic zebra stripes, which represents the hazy, melted-together vision of every two-bit town the band soldiers through.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hot Nun; towel smoking; penis oratorio

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If anything sets 200 Motels apart from the other psychedelic cinematic noodlings of the hippie era, it’s Frank Zappa’s extraordinarily weird music—a unique mix of jazz-inflected blues/rock, avant-garde 12-tone classical music, and junior high school sex jokes. Mix concert footage (both of the Mothers of Invention and the orchestra Zappa retained for the shoot) with experimental videos, underground cartoons, oddball rock star cameos, and no plot whatsoever and you have a movie worthy of the production company’s name: “Bizarre Productions.” Zappa is a latter-day saint of pop-surrealism, and although he’ll always be best known for his music, this is the canonical record of his twisted sensibility on film.


Original trailer for 200 Motels

COMMENTS: The original tagline did not read “Ringo Starr IS Larry Continue reading 266. 200 MOTELS (1971)

CAPSULE: THE FOX FAMILY (2006)

Gumiho Gajok

DIRECTED BY: Hyung-gon Lee

FEATURING: Si-Yeon Park, Hyeon Ju, Jung-woo Ha, Jun Gyu Park, Ju-yeon Ko, Cheol-min Park

PLOT: A family of foxes pose as circus performers; if they can eat a human liver on the lunar eclipse, they will become human for good.

Still from The Fox Family (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not especially weird. This is one of those fantasy films whose strangeness to Westerners stems mainly from different cultural expectations.

COMMENTS: “Where can we find a lot of humans?” asks the clueless Fox patriarch at a lonely gas station as the clan makes its way from the mountains to the city. The family of four is actually centuries old, but they’ve been living as kumiho—mischievous shapeshifting fox spirits—in the mountains. According to this movie’s spin on the ancient mythology, if they devour a person’s liver on the night of the lunar eclipse, they can become human forever. Unfortunately for this particular family, they are (mostly) sweet-natured yokels who are completely at sea when it comes to human society. They can’t even seduce lonely humans, supposedly the specialty of kumiho. The brother’s spastic dance floor moves get him ejected from the club, and the sister can’t fathom why her striptease doesn’t work on a particular subway patron. Still, it would be hard for them not to eventually bumble into a victim or two—except for the fact that they unwisely trust a con man who develops a scheme to protect his fellow humans (and save his own liver) while exploiting the clan.

There is a temptation to classify The Fox Family as a black comedy because of scenes like the one where a homicide detective absentmindedly scratches his head with a severed arm he finds at a grisly crime scene; yet, overall the tone is sweet, and even family-friendly. Even the con-artist is a pussycat at heart. The only features that give The Fox Family a whiff of weirdness are the musical numbers. They are mostly love songs from Si-Yeon Park—a South Korean model who is one of the world’s most beautiful women—although each member of the clan gets a moment in the spotlight. The only bizarre show-stopper is the trip to recruit victims—er, circus performers—at a camp for the homeless. Somehow, they dance their way into a complete different musical number, a Sharks vs. Jets vs. riot police style dance-off, complete with 1984-vintage breakdancing. This one scene may make the film worth a view for fans of Asian dementia.

If you want to understand why this film isn’t really weird, just use your imagination to change the fox spirits to something more Western (say, werewolves) and recast it with Hollywood stars: Danny DeVito as the father, Anna Kendrick as the older sister, as the brother, and for the cutie pie younger daughter—are there any Fanning sisters left? Suddenly, what we have isn’t a weird movie, but a light comedy with blockbuster potential. Although you would have to ditch those musical numbers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… nothing quite prepares viewers for the unhinged craziness of Lee Hyung-gon’s The Fox Family… Everything here is manic and mercurial.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat,” who described it as “Shape shifting fox spirits, a street riot that becomes a dance off and the oddest use of a Wonder Woman costume I’ve ever seen [and I’ve seen some odd ones!]. You can’t go wrong really.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

Have you had any interest from distributors?

The sales rep is talking to distributors. He’s saying, ‘Be patient.’ The distributors are afraid of the film because the film is weird. If you noticed.

You’d think that weird might be good.

Yes, weird should definitely be good, especially among these distributors who talk about how they’re into fresh, new original stuff. But they’re not. They’re the most cowardly creatures on the planet. I just got this big wave of good press, so that will make them realize it’s safer.”–Nina Paley, early Sita interview with Studio Daily

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Reena Shah, Debargo Sanyal, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Nina Paley, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya

PLOT: The relationship between artists Nina and Dave is strained when Dave relocates to India for a job. Meanwhile, three shadow puppets discuss the legend of Sita (the avatar of the god Lakshmi) and Rama (Vishnu’s reincarnation) from the Hindu epic “The Ramayana,” introducing animated recreations of the story of the love affair between the two demigods. Portions of the story are further illustrated by musical numbers where a flapper version of Sita sings the ballads of 1930s torch singer Annette Hanshaw.

Still from Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Ramayana, attributed to the poet Valmiki, tells the story of Lord Rama, the seventh human incarnation of the god Vishnu. Rama’s wife, Sita, is abducted by a demon-king; he rescues her but then rejects her, unable to cure himself of the suspicion that she was unfaithful during her captivity. The epic Sanskrit poem is composed of 24,000 couplets, was written centuries before the birth of Christ, and is considered one of the key works of Hindu literature.
  • Paley was inspired to create Sita Sings the Blues by noting parallels between the dissolution of her own marriage and the failed relationship of Sita and Rama as told in “The Ramayana.” After her breakup, she discovered the music of Annette Hanshaw while staying at a friend’s house, and incorporated the songs into the narrative.
  • Paley animated the movie almost entirely by herself on home computers (much of it in Adobe Flash); the process took three years. Although she was a working cartoonist before making Sita, she had no professional training as an animator.
  • Although universally praised in the west, Paley reported receiving criticisms from India from both the right (that the film was irreverent) and the left (that it represented a neocolonialist appropriation of Indian culture).
  • Paley originally released the movie under a liberal Creative Commons license, but later took the unusual decision to remove all restrictions and make the work a true public domain release. However, Annette Hanshaw’s music is still under copyright to its owners, so the film is not truly free and clear of restrictions (although no litigation has yet resulted from its continued distribution).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Selecting a single image from this visual smorgasbord is an impossible task. It’s likely that the characters from the Hanshaw musical numbers, with their undulating Flash graphics and comic book coloring, will stick in your memory the most: curvy, -ish Sita and her broad swiveling hips; buff, Hanna-Barbera-blue demigod Rama; and the many-headed, multi-limbed gods and demons who float through the story.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hindu big bang; flapper goddess; flying eyeball stalks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Paley is on record as suspecting that her homemade Hindu jazz epic was too “weird” to get a distribution contract. After Roger Ebert championed the film as “astonishingly original“, and it received overwhelming praise at festival screenings, the “weird” talk died down. It shouldn’t have. Sita is weird. It’s a proud, purposeful, defiant re-connection with humanity’s weird mythological roots, with primordial legends of hybrid god-monsters whose bizarre appearances only serve to magnify their very human foibles. Add in psychedelic animation, torch song musical numbers, and a chorus of unassuming non-omniscient shadow puppets, and you’ve got one strange and spicy stew of a home-cooked movie.


Theatrical release trailer for Sita Sings the Blues

COMMENTS: Sita Sings the Blues is a masterpiece. It’s an incredible Continue reading 237. SITA SINGS THE BLUES (2008)

CAPSULE: CHI-RAQ (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, , Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney

PLOT: A modern adaptation of the Classical Greek comedy “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes set against the backdrop of gun violence in Chicago: the girlfriend of a gang leader starts a movement with other women to withhold sex from men until the violence comes to an end.

chi-raq-650

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It may appear to be weirder than most of Spike Lee’s recent output, but it’s actually a refinement of stuff from his directorial toolbox, and the subject matter is too grounded in reality to call the approach ‘weird’.

COMMENTS: [Full disclosure: I have worked with co-writer Kevin Willmott on several of his films.]

Amazon Studios couldn’t have picked a better subject as the first production out of the gate. Chi-Raq is timely, guaranteed to start discussion, and it provides Spike Lee an opportunity that hasn’t been available to him for awhile: it’s his angriest film since 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Not that he’s been inactive as of late, but most of his vital work in the 00’s has been in documentary, theater and independently financed features (Red Hook Summer and the crowdfunded for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), while the major studios are more interested in steering his talents towards existing properties (the Oldboy remake).

Chi-Raq was originally developed as Gotta Give It Up, written by Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) as a ‘hip-hop musical’ with Jennifer Lopez eyed for the Lystristrata role. That project wasn’t made, but the idea was resurrected and retooled as Chi-Raq, and just as elements found in previous Lee films show up refined and evolved (Do the Right Thing, School Daze), one can recognize the same in Wilmott’s script (co-written with Lee): the complex interrelations of a community (Ninth Street), satire both slapstick and subtle (C.S.A., Destination Planet Negro) and the sense of history that’s present throughout Willmott’s work. Their sensibilities prove to be a good match for each other and for the material, and one can only hope that their collaboration will bear further fruit.

Satire works best when it’s pointed and angry; Chi-Raq proves that. Its major targets are guns and gun violence in America, specifically in neighborhoods on Chicago’s South-Side, and it’s not subtle at all on that subject. It opens with the song “Pray 4 My City” playing over a red/white/blue graphic of the USA comprised of various calibers of guns, followed by a flashing “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” graphic,  followed by statistics of deaths in Iraq vs. gun deaths in Chicago. Gun violence is a constant presence in the film, and it takes it VERY seriously. The subplot involving Jennifer Hudson’s daughter’s death and the search for her killer ground the film in a reality that the lighter touches never obscure.

Obviously, the satirical touches are more pronounced in the main story, mainly concerning sex and power. One could see it as a modern-day version of one of Chester Hines’ Harlem novels (Hines, in fact, did pen a ribald sex satire, “Pinktoes” that perhaps Messrs. Lee and Willmott might take on at some point). Although the “hip-hop musical” angle largely went by the wayside, some of it survives in live performances: a rap gig at a nightclub, gospel singers at a funeral service. The musical element reaches its apotheosis in “Operation Hot & Bothered” where the police & military attempt to draw out the women via tactics used in Panama, only instead of blasting rock music, they use “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites as the film cross-cuts between the women holding their chaste resolve inside and the military outside.

Performances are very good all the way around, although John Cusack was cheated of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Father Mike Corrigan (based on real-life preacher/activist Father Michael Pfleger).

The film was first made available to stream from Amazon, where it can still be streamed; after a brief theatrical run, it was released to DVD/Blu-Ray in late January 2016. One advantage in the home video release is the availability of subtitles, which helps in appreciating Willmott’s and Lee’s wordplay. Also, being able to pause the film helps in catching some of the visual humor in the settings.

Extended and deleted scenes, mostly character bits that weren’t essential, but help clarify some relationships, are included as extras.

CR_D07_00254.CR2

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)